Transformers/Avengers rated: PTSD

I saw The Avengers yesterday since everyone I know has been raving about it for weeks saying it was better than every other big budget comic book summer blockbuster (because it had a good script and good cinematography). I thought it was very good for a comic book movie, pretty good overall. It was entertaining, but at the same time disturbing. It took several hours after viewing to figure out what I found unsettling about it, and I’d have to say (slight spoilers) it was the battles that took place in NYC between giant metal evil snake things and the heroes.

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Of course it’s all computer generated and this is a movie, but it was distracting to see aliens and their ships constantly brushing up against buildings supposedly filled with office workers, knocking down buildings in some cases. While the comic book hero team was trying to save one or two buildings full of people, you’d see a dozen more get damaged. In the end the world gets saved but there’s no mention of all the damage and lives lost in the final scenes. It felt weird, like a minor side plot point that was previously mentioned was never mentioned again.

I hadn’t felt conflicted with entertainment since last summer’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The movie was tough to get through and a total assault of the senses in the battle sequences. It was like watching a difficult war movie (think: Platoon or Thin Red Line) and I couldn’t wait for it to be over (I nearly walked out halfway through).

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With Transformers, the influence was more obvious as the director used constant visual references to 9/11. There was a burning city with smoking skyscrapers, buildings went down after collisions with robots, and there were people diving out of planes (in wingsuits) shown in vertical poses next to buildings like iconic horrifying photos from September 11, 2001.

I never thought I was all that affected by the events of 9/11. I was on the West Coast, slept through the first crash and only got to see the second building collapse live on TV after reading everyone’s reactions on MetaFilter. I never experienced it in person with my own eyes, just through media from thousands of miles away.

Seeing these movies and remembering the horrifying events of that day, I can’t sit and watch a movie with CGI monsters battling in a city full of people and not think about the substantial collateral damage happening. Part of my mind knows this is all done on a computer and it’s fake robots in fake fights with a few extras running around on the ground and no one was hurt and this is all fiction, but a larger part of my brain remembers the horrifying images from TV that are permanently burned into my brain and I can’t really enjoy movies that mimic them in any way.

11 Comments

  • I felt the same way, though I still enjoyed the movie overall. I know that suburban audiences have a distanced love for New York, so these scenes just seem like a lot of fun with destruction and NYPD-hat-wearing cops, but, I find nothing more terrifying than seeing people attacked in their workplace, flailing their arms, screaming, powerless at a high elevation.

  • That’s an excellent point, Matt. While I personally have no desire to see the film, I think that some might see the recurring film destructions of NYC as a final part of our national collective grieving process. I think that such depictions normalize it instead.
    Just as some younger people thought Titanic was just a movie and not a real ship, I imagine some people might one day catch a clip of the WTC collapsing and think it’s from a movie.

  • I’ve felt the same way about disaster movies in general for some time now. I used to love them, but as I’ve aged (and, no doubt, as I’ve had children) I just can’t watch them. I see images of cities going up in flames or sliding into the sea and all I can think of is millions of families who die screaming, clutching to each other; or worse, physically separated and so dying without each other, alone.

  • While walking out of the theater with my wife, I told her that one of the main reasons I always preferred Batman and Superman to Spider-Man and the X-Men was that Gotham and Metropolis aren’t “real”.
    If the Joker wants to destroy something in Gotham, my brain doesn’t get too concerned about it because I’ve already “suspended disbelief” by accepting Gotham.
    When the crazy centipede things were flailing their way through NYC in Avengers, I, too, kept thinking about 9/11 and about the horrific loss of life they’d be causing, and it prevented me from suspending disbelief and enjoying the film as much as I’d have liked.

  • i worked as a film reviewer for a few years between 2002 and 2005, and it was amazing how often it was clear that filmmakers could not escape 9/11. The clearest example of this was Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, where the fundamental imagery and title of the source material itself had unescapable resonance with 9/11. After a while, it was kind of a grind for me, and it was super difficult to separate my projections of 9/11 onto the filmmakers’ work from the actual acknowledgements used by the filmmakers in their work.
    That has eased off for me now, and I am better able to see big action films without superimposing 9/11 on the experience. It will be interesting to see what I make of this one.

  • whoops, I was compressing The Two Towers and Return of the King into one in that remark.

  • Holy cow dvg, I think you hit the nail on the head with that one. I can truly enjoy Batman or even the Matrix movies as they destroy cities because it’s all fake and clearer fiction.

  • I wonder how much of it is 9/11 impacts and how much of it is just us getting older. The real/fake city thing may explain it for some people but I’m bothered regardless. For me it’s just a larger awareness of other people having lives around me. I’ve now lived through hurricanes and earthquakes and seen how even events that had almost no negative impact on me meant ruined lives or deaths for others.
    Post-apocalyptic fantasy was more fun when I was a teenager and was less aware of other people’s suffering. I don’t think I cared less about other humans but I certainly was less inclined to empathy for folks I had no personal connection to.

  • I felt that way only after they were like “Oh hey, save the people on the bus!” because at that point it became crystal clear that they weren’t just on a movie set (I mean they were, but you get my drift) they were interacting in a place that was occupied by real people and so, like you, every time I saw the weird monster thing brush up against the building I basically winced. I think also because I don’t totally trust filmmakers to not gross me out with gory deaths, so one of the things I liked about this movie was the lack of gore compared with, say, Game of Thrones.

  • What I liked about the way The Avengers dealt with this was the post-battle montage, with people putting up signs and photographs, much like in the days after 9/11 – looking for missing people. Some people have said that evoked the events of 9/11 too much for a comic book film – but I think the battles do that anyway. It’s good to see a least a small nod to people grieving after.

  • Spoiler Alert?
    I remember in middle school watching a war movie about World War II. At that time, the faculty who were vets were wondering why we were laughing at the death scenes. Aside from crappy production and overacting, we were laughing because we had no frame of reference; we’d been raised on fictional violent images. It was intense the next day when a couple of my teachers lost it talking about their war experience. Our band teacher was a paratrooper in WWII. He saw some grisly stuff and I’m still haunted by his talking about it and then nearly collapsing into his desk weeping. He was a hardass and to see him as an adult authority figure lose it like that was something I’d never experienced. That experience made the stories about vets seeing Saving Private Ryan and having visceral responses more real.
    I felt the same way about this film; the realism is crazy. If extrapolated into reality the loss of life in the battle scenes would have been astounding. It doesn’t make the film better or worse or good or bad. It does bring up the question that just because we can render insanely realistic battle sequences with equally rendered fantastical foes, doing so will mean a return to reality and break the disbelief.
    Despite its flaws, Cloverfield did a better job of handling the horror of an alien attack. But it wasn’t a superhero movie. I do think the realism lends a bit of gravitas and maybe on the flip side means that we might pause and reflect just how awesome the heroes are for facing such horror.
    I agree with @Keith Gow’s comments about that ending montage. Even then, the images are quickly overshadowed by the other reactions shown, particularly the kids.

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